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Controversy at Ypsilanti's Nickelodeon

Controversy at Ypsilanti's Nickelodeon image Controversy at Ypsilanti's Nickelodeon image
Laura Bien
Rights Held By
Ypsilanti Historical Society
OCR Text

This story previously appeared in the Ypsilanti Courier. Ypsilanti’s first movie theater wasn’t the Martha Washington at Washington and Pearl (now the Déjà Vu) or the Wuerth on Michigan Avenue (now a salon adjacent to the Wolverine Grill). In 1907, a tiny nickelodeon opened in a former grocer’s shop on the west side of North Huron, just north of the present-day Dalat. In its earliest days, The Vaudette didn’t show movies, but still images from a turn-of-the-century slide projector called a stereopticon. Resembling a lantern-camera hybrid, the stereopticon had a slot in which a glass plate with an image could be inserted. A variety of illuminants were used including kerosene, acetylene gas, and an apparatus that burned a piece of the white alkaline material lime in an oxyhydrogen gas flame, giving rise to the technical and later metaphorical term “lime-light.” Visitors to the Vaudette who had paid their nickel could choose one of the forty or so plain wooden chairs arranged on the old grocery store’s wooden floor, facing the small makeshift screen in back. To the side of the screen sat an upright piano at which a woman played popular pieces of the day to accompany the images being changed by her son Russell at the stereopticon. Pianist Elizabeth was accompanied by her husband, singer Bert Reader, a former local barber who’d founded the Vaudette. Bert’s English-born parents Thomas and Eliza had had their six children in three different countries. Their first, Comfort, was born in England. The family immigrated to Canada around 1860, where Lizzie, Josie, William, and Edward were born. Around 1875 the family moved to Michigan, settling in Ypsilanti. Bert, Thomas and Eliza’s last child, was born just a few days before July 4, 1876 - his parents gave him the middle name of Centennial. In July of 1896, Bert married Elizabeth Myers, the Michigan-born daughter of German immigrant parents, in Essex, Ontario. The couple settled in Ypsilanti on River Street, moving in a few years to a house at 728 Lowell on the north side of town near the present-day EMU campus. Bert worked as a barber at his brother William’s shop, the Opera House Shaving Parlors, at 222 Michigan Avenue. Elizabeth kept house and tended their toddler Russell. When the grocer’s shop at 19 North Huron closed, Bert purchased it and became a theater manager. If Bert had the genial gregarious nature of a good barber, it carried over well into his new career of entertaining the public, as he was well-known and well-liked in town. Bert rode his bicycle to work. An accident resulted in a front-page story in the May 17, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press. One sub-headline read, “Residents Living in Vicinity of Forest Avenue and Hamilton Street Highly Edified by Spectacular Exhibition. The proprietor of the local moving [picture] theater, it is said, was gaily bowling along Forest Avenue mounted on his steel steed, [and whistling ‘In the Good Old Summertime,’]” said the article. In cutting across a vacant lot, Bert ran into a wire that someone had erected to keep passersby off the grass. “The wheel stopped-the whistle stopped-everything stopped but Mr. Reader,” said the paper. “He kept right on going and those who saw the evolutions he made declare that he is perfectly competent to draw $1,000 a week at any summer resort. Mr. Reader is not saying much, but he walks with a perceptible limp.” The Vaudette customarily did not advertise in the Daily Press, but it made one exception around Thanksgiving of 1910, when it ran an ad for a screening of the blockbuster film “The Life of Moses.” Unlike the usual one-reel silent movies shown at nickelodeons, this film’s five reels took 90 minutes to play. Bert charged 25 and 35 cents [$5.80 to $8 today], with a Thanksgiving discount price of 10 cents. Other popular 1910 films included the sentimental “Abraham Lincoln’s Clemency,” an early, 13-minute version of “The Wizard of Oz,” a 16-minute version of “Frankenstein,” the nine-minute documentary “A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner,” the four-minute “Aeroplane Flight and Wreck,” and one of the earliest stop-motion films, the four-minute “The Automatic Moving Company,” about furniture moving itself into a house. One 1910 movie sparked controversy in Ypsilanti over the issue of whether it should be shown at all. The film was of a famous boxing match between the world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, and former champion James Jeffries. Born in 1878 to two former slaves, Johnson ascended through the boxing ranks to win in 1903 what was then called the “World Colored Heavyweight Championship.” Johnson offered to fight the then-world heavyweight champion Jeffries, who refused. In 1908 Johnson caused a sensation by defeating Canadian Tom Burns in Australia for the world heavyweight championship. This triumph brought Jeffries out of retirement to challenge Johnson. On July 4, 1910, Reno hosted the “Fight of the Century.” When Johnson defeated Jeffries, winning $65,000 [$1.5 million in today’s dollars], black Americans celebrated and were attacked in race riots that broke out around the country. Multiple deaths were reported, especially in the South. The film of the fight was widely banned, lest it reignite similar violence. When Bert Reader wrote to the film company to ask if he could show it, many Ypsilantians were apprehensive. The Daily Press asked the mayor if he would forbid the film’s screening at the Vaudette. “Whether or not the Johnson-Jeffries fight picture will be shown in Ypsilanti is as yet an uncertain problem,” said the July 25, 1910 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “ . . . When asked if the pictures would be allowed, [the mayor] said, ‘I shall not interfere.’ The matter would be decided, concluded the paper, by the police commissioner. Ypsilanti police may have vetoed the screening, as no mention of it appears in subsequent issues of the paper. By 1910, the era of opulent movie palaces was beginning, and that of dingy storefront nickelodeons was fading. The Daily Press condemned the Vaudette as a firetrap. The Press singled out the theater’s lack of safe fire exits and made reference to a recent nickelodeon fire in Dowagiac. There, the flammable celluloid film caught fire and the blaze destroyed the theater. Bert closed the Vaudette around 1912 and returned to working as a barber. In 1915 the Martha Washington opened, offering plush blue seats and elegant decorations in place of wooden chairs in a bare room. The Wuerth opened. Eventually, the Vaudette’s building was demolished. Its onetime owner nearly lived to see a second centennial; he died in 1965 and with his wife and son is buried in St. John’s Cemetery. Today the Vaudette’s onetime site is a parking lot, but a century ago, small audiences in front of a rattling film projector watched the magic of silent movies. (Laura Bien is the author of “Hidden History of Ypsilanti” and “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” She can be contacted at

Photo Caption: Photo 1: A 1919 ad for a screening of the film “The Life of Moses”